FUNDAMENTALS OF PRODUCT MANAGEMENT: THE PEOPLE

Understanding a Product Manager’s colleagues and their responsibilities

Because Product Managers need to collaborate with a multitude of people including the product design team, engineering team, product marketing, delivery management, and other support roles such as data analysts, it’s crucial to understand their scope of responsibilities and priorities to better work with them. Furthermore, Product Managers interact with the Product Leadership Team across Product Management, Design, and Technology and they need to align expectations appropriately and based on what each leadership team will be accountable for.

Nima Torabi

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Product managers interact with a multitude of colleagues on an ongoing basis that includes:

  1. Product Designers
  2. Engineers
  3. Product Marketers
  4. Project Delivery Managers
  5. Leadership across Product, Design, and Technology
  6. Support roles

Product managers must understand the roles, responsibilities, and priorities of their colleagues to best align with expectations.

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1. Product Design

While traditionally designers would take requirements or specifications from product managers and create designs in silos, modern product designers continuously collaborate with the larger product team across the discovery and delivery journey. Therefore, rather than getting measured on the output of work, product designers’ performance is gauged based on the success of the product and the business goals it’s aiming for.

This means that modern product designers should have many of the same priorities as their respective product managers with orientation around customer pains and the value their solutions/designs can create for users and the business.

Main responsibilities

Modern product designers’ responsibilities focus on four key areas:

  1. Creating a holistic user experience
  2. Prototyping
  3. User testing
  4. Interactivity and visual design

1. Creating a holistic User Experience

User Experience (UX) is all the tools and methods used so that customers/users realize the value a product is providing; this includes all the touch points and interactions a customer/user makes with the organization and product across their lifetime. Holistically thinking, this will include multiple direct user interfaces (UIs) on the product, indirect interactive touch points including e-mails, marketing campaigns, sales process, customer support, etc., and depending on the value you are creating, offline services such as retail stores or a ride with Uber.

Some key points to think about when designing for a holistic UX design include:

  • How do we reach out to customers for awareness and first interaction?
  • What will the onboarding process look like for first-time and returning customers/users?
  • Depending on the frequency of usage, what interactions will the users have across the day?
  • How do we absorb attention compared to the competition and substitutes?
  • How do we personalize the UX? What various segments of customers/users do we have and how will their UX needs differ?
  • How do we motivate various customers/users for loyalty, commitment, and purchase?
  • How do we get customers/users to share our solution and bring in referrals for growth?
  • How do we holistically integrate digital and offline experiences?
  • What are the perceived emotions of various customers/users towards the varying aspects of our product?

2. Prototyping

Prototypes are product designers’ main communication tool and they need to be comfortable with a variety of different prototyping tools and s/w for the various tasks they will tackle.

3. User testing

User testing is geared towards assessing solutions for usability and the value they create for customers.

Product designers need to be constantly testing and validating their prototypes and design ideas with actual customers/users and this process needs to be part of their weekly routine so that they continuously experiment and collect new insights.

This continuity draws the team away from becoming emotionally attached to designs and ideas before being validated by external stakeholder opinions.

4. Interactivity, industrial, and visual design

Modern product designers need to have a good grasp of designing for interactivity which includes conceptual models, work/task flows, and control layouts, and designing for interactions consisting of composition, typography, and brand presentations. If the solution is hardware, then the product designer needs to grasp industrial design also.

Product designers that have a more complete toolset, depending on requirements, can work quickly at different levels of fidelity while creating a more natural UX. This varied skill set is particularly important when designing mobile products.

Pitfalls with product design

A lack of product designers will result in product managers and engineering working on half-baked concepts and wireframes and rarely lead to products that excel at providing a holistic UX. This is why companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook invest so much into their product designers, although at times the noise we hear about Google and Facebook’s engineering staff can be too much that overshadows design.

Furthermore, product designers are not there as a service to provide beautiful visuals but as a partner for product and customer discovery and to drive design as a function for growth, value creation, and usability. Therefore, outsourcing or offshoring key members of the product design team is a bad business decision. Product design needs to be a first-class member of the product organization and not a supporting service.

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2. Engineering

The relationship between the engineers/developers and their product managers is key to a product’s success. Success with a product requires a relationship built on mutual and sincere respect and trust between the product managers and the engineers and therefore needs to be taken seriously and nurtured. This requires both sides to do their homework and bring the knowledge and skills of great product management and development.

Furthermore, both sides need to develop a better understanding of their peers’ work demands and complexities across product discovery and development. Therefore, product managers are advised to take some programming language courses to understand what engineers do. The engineers should become more engaged during the product discovery phase to understand the amount of work and complexities product managers grapple with.

Communication between product managers and engineering should be transparent and positioned to empower each side to discover and deliver the perfect solutions. The level of engagement between product managers and engineers should be daily and across product discovery ideation and execution and in scrums to clarify questions related to development.

The case of Tech Leads/Senior Engineers

Engineers that move into leadership roles, i.e., Tech Leads, bring broad development knowledge to the table and are expected to share their knowledge with other engineers and coach them. Furthermore, the Tech Leads are also expected to help the product managers and designers discover valuable, usable, feasible, ethical, and viable solutions.

Therefore, Tech Leads need to be actively engaged with product discovery, either directly or indirectly by sending other engineers into call-ups depending on priorities and availability.

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3. Product Marketing

Product marketers (or sales if you are in a B2B organization and depending on your structure) are usually not dedicated members of each product team and get spread across multiple products. They generally align their portfolio based on business lines, target markets, sales and g-to-market channels, and/or client/partner type.

To build effective and high-value products, product marketers need to be involved during the discovery, delivery, and launch phases. While product marketers’ focus will be to represent the market to the product team through the organization’s positioning, communication messaging, and go-to-market and sales plans, their key focus while collaborating with the product team will be on helping the team better understand their target customers/users and to differentiate their product from that of the competitors.

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4. Project Delivery

Delivery managers (or at times referred to as project or program managers depending on the culture and roots of the organization) are project managers whose objective is to remove product and non-product-related obstacles, impediments, and dependencies for the team. They are also scrum masters and are responsible for tracking timelines and the health of project progress.

For those organizations that don’t have delivery managers, which is generally the case at smaller organizations and startups, then the project delivery task will generally fall under the responsibility of the product managers or tech leads.

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5. Leadership

As a product team recruits more talent, grows, and scales the role of its leadership changes. The role of the product team leadership will be to:

  • Recruit, develop, and retain strong talent
  • Maintain a holistic view of the product when there are multiple product teams so that everyone knows how the parts make the whole
  • Keep teams nimble, lean, empowered, and autonomous
  • Sustain accountability at scale and build mini-CEOs around products
  • Minimize and deal with the growing levels of dependencies and technical debt

And the combination of product management, design, and technology leaders need to come together to help fulfill the above requirements.

The role of ‘Product Management’ Leadership

The leadership of Product Management needs to ensure that the pieces of product work fit together from a business point of view which includes the product vision, strategy, functionality, business rules, and logic. The leadership needs to build the product team’s North Star and continuously work to remove bottlenecks toward the team’s shared vision.

Depending on the scope and size of the product team, there could be a hierarchy of leadership including Directors, Senior Directors, VPs, SVP, and the CPO. Specific details on the role of the Product Leadership team can be found in the links below.

The role of ‘Product Design’ Leadership

The Product Design leadership will be held accountable for the holistic user experience that ensures a consistent and effective UX across the various product journeys and systemwide. This can be a leadership team, one of the managers or directors of design, or even a principal designer which will all depend on the size and scope of the product’s activities.

In large organizations, there are so many interactions and interdependencies and so much institutional knowledge of the business, users, and customer journeys, that it requires a team of leaders to review the product UI and UX and one can’t expect individual product managers or designers to get to everything.

The role of ‘Technology’ Leadership

The greatest product ideas and designs are worthless if they are not launched and delivered to users/customers. As product managers need to collaborate effectively with engineers, the role of Technology Leadership will be key to a product team’s success.

The Technology Leadership team, headed by the CTO, is responsible for building and running the company’s products and services by managing the:

  1. Managing the engineering team: the goal is to build a strong management team committed to the development of the skills in the team driven by metrics such as retention rates
  2. Technology leadership: consisting of representing technology in the strategic direction of the company working alongside other executives
  3. Delivery management: making sure that the organization can rapidly, reliably, and repeatedly deliver quality solutions to customers/users measured by consistency, frequency, and quality of releases. The main bottleneck to rapid delivery is often technical debt and it’s the responsibility of the Technology Leadership to ensure that dependencies and technical debt are kept at manageable levels
  4. Architecture development: enabling the organization to deliver functionality, scalability, reliability, security, and performance to compete in the marketplace. The Technology Leadership team is responsible for the company-wide technology strategy and needs to continuously monitor the infrastructure and keep it up with the growth of the business
  5. Product discovery: making sure that senior engineering members contribute to the product discovery process
  6. Evangelism: connecting and networking with internal and external stakeholders (e.g., 3rd party partners, clients, universities, etc.) advocating for the organization’s technological solutions in the larger community.

The sign of a great Technology Leadership team is its commitment to continually utilize technology as an enabler for business and products by removing barriers to development and broadening the realm of value-creating possibilities.

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Support roles

User research specialists

During product discovery, product teams need to rapidly uncover qualitative and quantitative insights about customers. Especially with qualitative research that uncovers generative knowledge of the problem the team is aiming to solve and also evaluative knowledge of how well the solution answers those needs, larger product teams require trained user researchers to help find the target customers/users, design appropriate tests, and comprehend the results.

Data analysts

With so much product work becoming data-driven these days, Data or Business analysts are experts in the area of helping product teams collect the right quantitative data and understand and interpret them. These individuals are partners to product managers and if they are not present in your organization, their tasks fall under the product management team’s responsibilities.

Test Automation

Test automation engineers who have replaced old-style manual QApeople, write automated tests for products. They work closely with engineers writing automated testing codes either entirely or partly by themselves to ensure product performance and scalability as it’s publicly launched/released.

The level of test automation necessary to release with confidence (acceptance testing), depending on the scope of your product, can be extremely high, and at times you can have multiple test engineers and teams working on assurances, and product managers and engineers need to understand their priorities and work to meet their standards.

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Nima Torabi

Present: Audio & Video Ent. Group PM at Rogers Media | Former: Fintech Startup Founder + Exit, Ex-Strategist @[Samsung], and Venture Founder @[Rocket Internet]